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What Are The Differences Between International Schools And Bilingual Schools

For any family looking to relocate abroad, a key consideration has to be their children’s education. Many families want to travel as a unit, meaning no one gets left behind. It also means they have to consider what kind of schools are accessible to their children and which ones to consider seriously. 

Many expatriates that have moved to Hong Kong have heard of international and bilingual schools. Though the terms are at times used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing. Let us break down what each kind of school is and how they differ from one another. 

What is an international school?

International schools are educational institutions designed to cater to the schooling needs of children of expatriates. They often also accommodate native children whose parents want them to learn under a foreign curriculum. They offer a curriculum that is different from what the national system of education offers. The most prominent are international schools that follow the British curriculum. This dominance is a result of the number of British nationals that have emigrated or temporarily had to relocate to Hong Kong for work or business. 

What is a bilingual school?

Bilingual schools may use utilise the national system of education curriculum or that of a foreign country. They however have at least two languages that they use in instruction. In Hong Kong, the majority of public schools use the Chinese medium of instruction(CMI), with others using English. Some that primarily use Chinese will have English as the secondary language of instruction. Some international schools are also bilingual, enabling students that enrol to become fluent and literate in the two chosen languages of instruction. 

How International and Bilingual Schools differ


International schools offer a foreign-based curriculum. British curriculums tend to be the most favoured with accreditations like the Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel being the more widely available. Some international schools also offer internationally accredited education programmes such as the International Baccalaureate and the International Primary Curriculum (IPC). Some schools also offer an American-based curriculum. 

There are bilingual schools that offer both foreign-based and local curriculum. Most local schools that offer bilingual education, do so in the Chinese and English languages. The goal with such schools is to better enable the students to learn a new language. For foreign students, it enables them to better learn Chinese, while natives become more adept at English. You will likely find that international schools will have smaller classes than public bilingual schools. 

Language of instruction

International schools tend to apply English as the language of instruction. This means the teachers must be fluent in the English language to teach whatever subject they are assigned. Exams are also conducted in the same language. The only deviation lies in foreign language classes. Many international schools offer language classes in various languages including Chinese, French, and German. Some may make it a requirement for students to take up at least one other language class. This is to help them become bilingual.

Bilingual schools teach using at least two languages. Local schools will often deliver lessons in both English and Chinese. Some international schools will also do the same. The languages will be switched on some periodic basis but ensure the entire curriculum is covered in both. You can find many primary and secondary schools that offer this kind of training. Some schools undertake more immersive training that ensures the use of both languages in class. The teacher is either fluent in both languages or the class will have two teachers representing both languages. 

Cultural diversity

International schools tend to have the majority of students originating from various foreign countries. The student body is typically diverse, meaning that they gain exposure and experience from interacting with a wider variety of people. The teachers also often come from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Many students become familiar and learn about different languages and cultures from around the world simply because of the cultural diversity of their classmates, their parents and the teachers. 

Bilingual international schools are popular with foreigners, making it another culturally diverse environment for a student to be exposed to. This can help make them more open-minded about new experiences and tolerant. If the bilingual school is however local, you are more likely to find that the student body is mainly made up of natives. 


International schools are mostly for profit. They have wealthy investors and charge high tuitions that provide the needed funding to build well-equipped campuses. From music halls to science labs, soccer fields to basketball courts, you will find that international schools have plenty of modern facilities to support core subject training and extracurricular activities. The continued funding ensures that everything is properly maintained and that upgrades are made when needed. It also ensures they can offer good salaries that attract the best teachers and maintain smaller class sizes. 

Bilingual schools that are international can also be well-funded and offer a good selection of modern facilities on their premises. However, like most other countries, public school funding is not as generous. Although, public sector education is free from the age of 6 years. Public schools tend to have larger class sizes and do not offer much in the way of extracurricular activities.


International schools have smaller class sizes that allow teachers to give more individual attention to students. They are better able to track their progress and give extra help where needed. A more holistic approach is taken in learning so that student development is not just academic, but also spiritual and mental. Students are well-nurtured and encouraged to question and delve deeper into their studies. This also applies to bilingual international schools. 

The constraints and pressures of public sector education mean that teachers have to contend with limited resources and larger class sizes. The memorisation of materials is emphasised to help in passing exams without understanding being required. 

For the best quality of education for your child, an international school would be best. Many offer language classes that can enable your child to learn a variety of new languages. All this while studying under a sound curriculum that will give them the best chances of securing a place in the college they aspire. Bilingual international schools are fewer and thus more competitive. They can also be more challenging if the child is older. Trying to learn a new language while older is more difficult, especially if it is being used in instruction. Public schools are the most affordable but few may offer the calibre of education that would be comparable to international schools.